News

The books by women every man should read

In her bestselling book The Authority Gap, our current Chair of Judges Mary Ann Sieghart revealed research showing that most men simply don’t read books by women.

For the top 10 bestselling female fiction authors (who include Jane Austen, Margaret Atwood and Agatha Christie), only 19% of their readers are men and 81% women. But for the top 10 bestselling male authors (who include Charles Dickens and JRR Tolkien, as well as Lee Child and Stephen King), the split in readers is much more even: 55% men and 45% women.

In other words, women are prepared to read novels by men, but men are much more reluctant to pick up novels by women.

In the past, publishers and authors have tried to fool men into reading books by women by only using the initial of their first names on the cover, a trend once prolific in the crime genre, or giving themselves a nom de plume (think George Elliot, George Sand or even Robert Galbraith).

This isn’t a habit picked up in adulthood. Recent research by End Sexism in Schools found that, in the KS3 English curriculum, 77% of schools teach only one or no whole texts by female writers. No Jane Austen, no Toni Morrison, no Emily Dickinson.

Female authors dominate the literary fiction shelves and many of their books are the latest hit TV shows we are watching on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Men are behind the zeitgeist and, consciously or unconsciously, limiting their experiences. They are visiting the buffet and only choosing salads. As film-maker Richard Curtis says, ‘You’re literally missing out on all the best books you could possibly read.’

The Women’s Prize would like to change that. We have been asking our past judges and friends of the prize to recommend one brilliant novel written by a woman that men should read. The suggested novels have been brilliantly eclectic; from classics to fantasy, there’s a fantastic read here for everyone.

You have been voting on your favourites from the list and we’ll be announcing a top ten essential reads by women for men soon.


Here are some of the recommendations from men:

Adam Rutherford – geneticist, author and radio broadcaster

My suggestion would be (everything by) Natalie Haynes, but more specifically A Thousand Ships, her retelling of the legend of Troy from the rarely considered point of view of the women inherently involved.

The tales of the Greeks are so foundational to Western culture, and integral to our shared consciousness, yet Troy pivots on Helen, a character that has only four more lines in the Iliad than an actual horse (this is true). And so, the narrative that is baked into our culture is that of men as heroes, politicians, cowards, warriors and masters of the universe, and women as either fey victims of circumstance with no agency, or manipulative and evil. Our legends tell us women are princesses in towers or witches. Natalie Haynes is not having any of it, no sir.

 

Alexander Armstrong – actor and comedian

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout. Language, in the hands of Elizabeth Strout, is a tool of such precision.

Her characters, their relationships, their conversation, all poke out from the page at precisely the same oblique angles as people do in real life. You would swear that the wind in her stories might actually ruffle your hair.

 

 

 

Andrew Billen – journalist and children’s author

The Premise of The Candy House is sci-fi: a machine to upload and share your memories. But this is not a retelling of Pandora’s Box . It is nearer a metaphor for the one non-negotiable talent demanded of a novelist: an ability to get into the consciousness of her characters, and there are so many here.

It is funny, sad, intelligent, humane and beautifully written and requires a little bit of work from the reader, who is duly rewarded. I can’t think of a single sense in which this is a “woman’s novel”.

 

 

Anthony Horowitz – bestselling novelist

A tale of marriage and morality, a feminist tract, a trenchant analysis of life in a Midlands town in the early nineteenth century.

Middlemarch is all this and more – and it earns its place as one of the greatest novels written in the English language. “What we have been makes us what we are.”

 

 

 

 

Ardal O’Hanlon – comedian, actor and novelist

The Outline Trilogy by Rachel Cusk: Three precision novellas written with a Stanley knife dipped in lemon juice.

Thrillingly deadpan, unflinching, often funny and, for a man, a sometimes uncomfortable insight into the female narrator’s roving mind and her all-too-accurate perceptions of the men she encounters.

 

 

 

Charlie Connelly – TV and radio presenter and author

This book absolutely blew my socks off. I don’t have many socks and I still didn’t mind. Epic in its scope, Great Circle‘s story of aviator Marian Graves and her attempt to circumnavigate the globe via both poles is an outstanding piece of storytelling.

Ranging across the entire globe it’s a novel epic in its scale and ambition yet everything, but everything works. A rampaging fizzer of a yarn, Great Circle rattles along at a pace that never drops yet never leaves you out of breath. Maggie Shipstead is a hell of a writer who’s written a hell of a book. Why would I recommend it to men? Pretty much because it’s just one of the best, most thrilling and beautifully-written novels they’ll ever read but if I have to be more specific, well, it’s got loads of aeroplanes in it.

 

Eric Huang – podcaster

Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles is a recent favourite. Her retelling of a traditionally ‘male’ tale of war is essential reading for men because it’s so nuanced, so meticulously researched and moving. It’s this version of the Greek legend that makes Achilles and Patroclus real for me, the only one that delves deeply into who they are: the childhood experiences, emotions, and love that make them men.

 

 

 

Nick Moran – actor

Daphne Du Maurier’s last novel, Rule Britannia, was panned on release. Its premise that the UK, having voted to leave the European Union, falls into near financial collapse and a return to rationing, was thought of as far-fetched and preposterous. Not foreboding or dripping in Cassandrian foresight.

 

 

 

 

Okechukwu Nzelu – award-winning writer

How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang. Everybody should read this book. It is a brilliant novel: it’s gripping, endlessly intelligent and deeply moving.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peter Frankopan – bestselling historian and professor

10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak is beautifully written, wonderfully original and deeply moving. Elif is one of my all time favourite novelists. This is a jewel of a book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Williams – TV writer, producer and showrunner

Like another of my favourite novels, The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing, this is an absolutely gripping and psychologically acute story of a woman dealing with the aftermath of creating a monster.

You don’t have to be a mother (or a woman for that matter) to love it, you don’t even have to be a parent; it’s a darkly brilliant novel about what makes us human and, occasionally, inhuman.

 

 

 

Simon Mayo – radio presenter and bestselling author

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I remember thinking I had never read anything like it before. That the Price family were all brilliantly realised. That the Belgian Congo was terrifying. And that missionaries were nuts.

 

 

 

 

 

Stanley Tucci – actor, director and writer

Elizabeth Day’s Magpie is at once eerie, darkly funny and very touching.

Men should read this book because it is f***ing great. Plain and simple.

 

 

 

 

Stig Abell – journalist, newspaper editor and radio presenter

In my view, the greatest ever series of detective fiction comes in Sayers’s stories of the love affair between her fictional sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey and novelist Harriet Vane.

Gaudy Night comes in the middle of the series. Men, like women, should read it because it is beautifully written, elegantly plotted, full of likeable folk, and has a beating heart throughout. Sayers is an author for everyone and could never be pigeonholed by her gender. And these books have both hero and heroine, stumbling towards a way to live together in love and harmony. Hooray for that.


The Women's Prize Podcast


Tune into host Vick Hope and a line-up of incredible guests on our weekly podcast full of unmissable book recommendations.

Win our 2022 shortlist!

Join the Women's Prize newsletter for a chance to win a stack of all 6 brilliant 2022 shortlisted books, and get the latest book news, author features and exciting competitions! (You can unsubscribe at any time)*